Category ►►► Science - Good

July 1, 2009

The Membrane Connecting Science, Morality, and Aesthetics - More Thoughts

Evolutionary Elucidations , God and Man In the Blogosphere , Opinions: Nasty, Brutish, and Shortsighted , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

In the comments of a previous post, frequent commenter Geoman wrote the following:

Which brings me to this: the involvement of god or supernatural forces, in any way shape or form, automatically negates your argument as science.

This is true, as far as it goes: Of course discussion of the nature of God is not "science." But not being science is not synonymous with not being worth discussing or not rational or not serious... or even not real. That error -- made by virtually all those particular scientists (or science writers) who also happen to be atheists, is just as egregious as Michael Behe claiming that evolution requires the specific finger of God to arrange various systems of a bacterium into a flagellum.

All that science can say about non-scientific questions is -- science can't say anything about non-scientific questions.

That does not translate to, "Non-scientific questions are nonsense that need never be considered." It also doesn't translate to, "Things outside science are fantasies that don't really exist." But we do need to recognize that they can be neither proven nor disproven by the scientific method; they may well be urgent, vital questions -- but they must be discussed and debated without the imprimatur of "science."

The danger of mistaking any systematized mode of thinking for the only such available is twofold:

  1. That we try to drape the mantle of science over questions of politics, religion, morality, aesthetics, or sociology.

This results in, e.g., "social Darwinism," where the undeniable reality of evolutionary biology (henceforth "evo-bio") is abused to declare one race or class of people to be superior to another. (Oddly enough, those making such declarations invariably find themselves in the superior, never the inferior group.)

As noted earlier in the comments of the linked post, such ideological abuse-of-theory does not invalidate the original science that was perverted; but it can taint it politically, causing people wrongly to reject it, in the mistaken belief that the abuse is a "natural consequence" of the real science... and under the well-known fallacy that if the natural consequence of something is bad, its supposed source must be false. ("It can't be true, because it would be so dreadful if it were!")

The corollary danger, though, is just as grim:

  1. That we reject anything not provable by science as fiction, fantasy, or meaningless sentimentality.

What an ugly world that would be! And a dangerous one; as above, you cannot "prove" traditional morality (justice, decency, loyalty, courage, and such) by science... so such hyper-rationalists must reject morality as a guide to behavior. They must also reject aesthetic considerations such as beauty, taste, and love; as well as frivolities such as play and recreation. One becomes an automaton.

To be a whole person, we need both scientific rationalism and other varieties of rationalism. To be a whole society, we need all of the above, but also religious rationalism -- a certain kind of religion, that which Dennis Prager identifies as "ethical monotheism." Individuals may not need religion to be moral, but Prager has convinced me that societies do.

Each kind of reasoning must stay in its proper sphere, but each sphere must have some limited volume of overlap with all of the others. As organic minds, we cannot compartmentalize, say, our scientific from our religious reasoning: Each must take account of the other, or we fall prey to Multiple Epistemology Syndrome -- one mode of thinking tells us something is true, while another tells us equally strongly that it is false; and there is no way to mediate between the severed pieces of mind.

The proper answer to the question of evo-bio and Mankind is to accept that evo-bio is how our bodies biologically evolved... and also, that if a theistic God exists, He clearly chose evo-bio as the means to create us (and also as the means to create porpoises, penguins, pike eels, petunias, and paramecia).

By definition of omniscience, a theistic God would know that setting the various laws of the universe and physical constants the way they are, along with a particular initial state of matter and energy, would result eventually in us. But that also requires us to accept that the same space-time and mass-energy "initial condition" might also have created (and continue to create) similar evo-bio elsewhere. In other words, if God works miracles by science, we might not be unique. There may be others out there going through similar intellectual angst, confronting equivalent crises of faith or science; we cannot rule it out by glib vanity and Biblical narcissism.

That same God would necessarily transcend the physical universe (or else He couldn't have created it!) -- so if He exists, he can also be the source of kinds of reasoning that transcend scientific reasoning. That doesn't make them better; they just answer different questions than does scientific reasoning.

In other words, the religious have no reason to reject science a priori; nor do the scientific have any reason to reject religion a priori. They exist quite comfortably side by side; and neither pursuit is inherently useless, meaningless, sterile, or Orwellian.

This seems very obvious to me (and to such prominent religious scientists as Francis Collins), and I've never understood why it seems such a stumbling block to a majority in both camps, the scientific and the religious.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, July 1, 2009, at the time of 7:14 PM | Comments (39) | TrackBack

May 28, 2009

Mine's Bigger Than Yours, but Theirs Is Bigger Than Anybody's!

Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

An open letter to John Hinderaker of Power Line, in response to his post High Points, discussing which state has the lowest highest elevation... that is, the state of the United States whose highest point is the lowest of any state:


Dear John;

I know you were looking for the lowest high point; but I can't resist bragging that my own California has both the lowest low point in North America -- Badwater, a depression within the depression of Death Valley (282' below sea level) -- and also the highest high point in the lower 48 -- Mt. Whitney (14,505'); it's 65' taller than the tallest peak of the Rocky Mountains (Mt. Elbert, 14,440').

[This paragraph is corrected; there are other mountains in Alaska that are taller than Whitney. Hat tip to commenter Brotio.] The only point in the United States that is taller The only state in the United States whose high point is higher than California's is Alaska; Alaska's Mt. McKinley, a.k.a. Denali, is 20,320'... the highest mountain peak in North America.

The question, "what is the tallest mountain on Earth?" is interesting because of its essential ambiguity; depending on what the meaning of "tallest" is, there are three possible answers:

  1. Mt. Everest, which boasts an elevation of 29,028' above mean sea level (MSL), but rises only about 12,000' from its surrounding plain.
  2. Mount Chimborazo, in the Andes (Ecuador); although its summit is only 20,564' above MSL, it happens to be the point on the Earth's surface farthest from the Earth's center (due to the equatorial bulge) -- 3,968 miles, 1.3 miles more than the distance from the peak of Mt. Everest to the Earth's center.
  3. Mauna Kea, the tallest peak on the Big Island (Hawaii), is the mountain that rises the farthest from the base on which it sits; but since Mauna Kea's base is of course beneath the Pacific ocean (that's why it's an "island"), it doesn't seem as tall, rising only 13,803' above MSL. However, it rises 33,476' (!) above its base in the surrounding (subaqueous) plain.

But we're being so geocentric... If we expand our search to the tallest known mountain in the solar system, that would be Olympus Mons on Mars, which soars a truly majestic 88,600' (16.7 miles, yow!) above the mean surface level of Mars... the measurement that substitutes for MSL, as Mars hasn't any "S." (No liquid water, at least not aboveground, because the Martian atmosphere is so thin that the boiling temperature of water is below the freezing temperature; therefore water can only exist as ice or vapor on Mars.)

So the next time you go bragging about the looming mountains of Minnesota (highest elevation: Eagle Mountain, 2,301' above MSL), look upon the Ozymandian Olympus Mons, ye Mighty, and despair.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 28, 2009, at the time of 11:45 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

May 1, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Gassy...

Future of Energy Production , Future of Food , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

I suppose a couple of you have noticed food prices rising. (This only applies to those of us who eat.)

The major reason, of course, is the continued industrialization of large countries with economies that are just now emerging from third-world status -- especially in Asia, and particularly China and India. As more and more of their combined 2.46 billion residents (36.8% of the world's population) shift into a middle-class lifestyle, they eat more (duh); that means less food for everyone else, as neither has increased food production at anywhere near the rate they've increased consumption. (China has the additional burden of a water pollution and food contaminantion problem of staggering proportions.)

I suspect there is another hidden cause of food shortages and the consequent price rise; but none of the elite media has mentioned it (for reasons that will become obvious), so I don't know how much or little it contributes. From the beginning of the Clinton era until very recently, many countries in Europe, Africa, and especially Latin America have shifted leftwards. With internationalist obsessions with "land reform," anti-white racism, and the war against agribusiness, I suspect they've inadvertently sabotaged their food production and export.

Zimbabwe is the poster-child of this problematic trend:

Food insecurity in Zimbabwe is a result of a combination of factors, not all of which are due to climate. Drought-related food production problems, chaos resulting from violent disputes over the legitimacy of President Robert Mugabe's re-election, and the government's quixotic approach to land redistribution have combined to exacerbate the food shortage. In February 2000, seizure of white-owned farms commenced, and it increased in frequency leading up to the election in March 2002. At that point, Mugabe decided to break up the large white-owned commercial farms for the country's landless war veterans, which reduced the large-scale commercial-sector planted area by 74 percent compared with 2000-01 levels. (2) Due to pressures from the land redistribution program, large-scale commercial cattle stock, which traditionally accounted for up to 90 percent of national beef exports, is estimated to have declined by 70 percent from 1.3 million in December 2001 to 400,000 in July 2002.

I've never seen hard data, but I suspect revolutionary land-, energy-, and water-use policies have annihilated a significant part of the world food supply.

Still, at least some of the problem can be laid at the doorstep of the mass movement away from oil drilling -- and towards ethanol production from corn and other grains, items which are better eaten than burnt.

Thus, this research should come as very welcome news: General Motors has started sinking significant money into developing methods of creating ethanol out of the trash-parts of grain, out of wood pulp, and other inedibles:

The General Motors Corporation announced on Thursday that it was hedging its bets on how best to make ethanol from non-grain sources, and making an investment in a second company with technology that might do that job cost-effectively.

G.M., which has pledged to make half its vehicle production ethanol-compatible by 2012, said it had taken an equity position in Mascoma, a company based in Lebanon, N.H., that has three proprietary technologies for making ethanol from sources like papermill waste, corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass. G.M. would not reveal the amount of its investment or the size of its stake.

In January, G.M. bought a stake in a company named Coskata that would use similar raw materials but with a different process.

I don't really see a downside to this. Coskata says that it can produce a gallon of ethanol from such otherwise junk plant sources for just a dollar to a dollar fifty; if they could produce ethanol at sufficient rates -- which they can't just yet -- that could dramatically lower fuel costs (for vehicles capable of burning alcohol-gasoline combinations).

So could drilling more of our own oil, of course; but there is no reason, other than political poltroonery, that we can't do both.

Evidently, it's the early stages of production, prior to fermentation, that need some real breakthroughs:

Ethanol made from non-grain materials, known as cellulose, is identical to corn ethanol, and the final steps ae usually the same: using yeast to ferment sugars into alcohol. But getting the sugar out of the cellulose is complicated. The process usually requires treating the cellulose with steam or acids to open up the material, and then letting enzymes — the digestive juices of bacteria or fungi — free the sugars. In addition, the cellulose includes both conventional six-carbon sugars as well as five-carbon sugars, but most industrial-grade yeast only likes the six-carbon variety.

Executives at Mascoma said they had developed a patented process, using heat and mechanical action, to treat the cellulose, avoiding the use of chemicals.

And, they said, they are working with some bacteria that feed off cellulose and break it down, and others that are efficient at converting sugars to ethanol. “Each one exists separately in nature,” said Dr. Lee R. Lynd, a founder of the company and its chief scientist. Now they are using gene splicing to give a single organism the ability to do both.

The approach is potentially simpler than the one used by some competitors, which is to digest the cellulose using an enzyme made in a separate process.

Just something to keep an eye on; it should be obvious that if we can make enough ethanol out of stuff we ordinarily would throw away, such as "papermill waste," it would be stupid to ferment and burn edible crops.

Once again, it's technology to the rescue. If Thomas Malthus were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 1, 2008, at the time of 5:24 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

April 18, 2008

I appear to have become a Nazi...

Confusticated Conservatives , Evolutionary Elucidations , Science - Bad , Science - Bogus , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

...Along with everyone else who accepts the modern theory of evolution by variation and natural selection.

I was just listening to Ben Stein on the Michael Medved show. Stein has a new documentary out, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which argues that "Big Science" has systematically suppressed all the evidence showing that God exists, that He specially created all live on the planet, and that Darwinism is the great hoax of the 19th century.

One paragraph in, and already I'm getting sidetracked! This reminds me of a story Fred Pohl tells. When he was hosting the Long John Neville show, during one of his frequent episodes debunking UFOlogy, an angry believer in alien abductions demanded of Pohl, "How much evidence do we have to present before you admit They're here?"

Pohl's response was brilliant, though I must paraphrase: "A million pieces wouldn't be enough, because you and I have completely different ideas of what constitutes 'evidence.'"

Alas, just a few minutes into Stein's stint on Medved, I discover something unsavory about myself: Stein and Medved, both of whom reject evolutionary theo-- excuse me, "Darwinism" -- spent some time reassuring each other that the entire Nazi movement was founded on Darwinism, and that Hitler saw Darwinism as an integral part of Naziism. Ergo, I appear to have become a "Nazi" as well as an "atheist" "Darwinist".

Now a purist might note that Hitler was far more interested in "social Darwinism" -- by which he meant his prepenultimate bête noire Capitalism, rather than biological "Darwinism" -- and that Hitler railed against Capitalism for its social Darwinism, among other reasons... what fascists call inefficient and unjust competition. Even today, the term "social Darwinism" generally means Capitalism to everyone but Ben Stein. (Hitler's three biggest bugbears were, in reverse order, Capitalism, Communism, and Jews.)

Think I'm exaggerating about Stein's argumentum? From Ben Stein's own blog, here is his conflation of "Darwinism" (he never calls evolution by its actual name) with imperialism (if the first link doesn't resolve, try this one):

Let’s make this short and sweet. It would be taken for granted by any serious historian that any ideology or worldview would partake of the culture in which it grew up and would also be largely influenced by the personality of the writer of the theory....

In other words, major theories do not arise out of thin air. They come from the era in which they arose and are influenced greatly by the personality and background of the writer.

The Stein thesis is already misleading and boorish. Evolutionary theory is not an "ideology or worldview;" it is a scientific theory. And science uses the word "theory" differently than do other disciplines.

As Stein understands the word, it means any supposition, no matter how airy: the theory of Progressivist economics, the theory of deconstructionism. But in science, a theory is a hypothesis that has been thoroughly vetted, for which a tremendous amount of favorable evidence has been produced, and against which there is no significant contradictory evidence... a hypothesis or model doesn't become a theory until there is a consensus of well-respected scientists in relevant fields -- including previous dissenters -- who now support it.

Of course scientific ideas are affected by the cultures in which they arise, but primarily because different cultures generate different problems to solve and produce different technologies by which to measure the real world. Science itself, however derived, works equally well in every culture, every country, every continent, and (we presume) on every planet in the universe.

It is thus truly universal in a way that faith, morals, and philosophy can only dream about. But the price paid is that science is strictly limited to explaining how the natural world works; it cannot, even in theory (there's that pesky word again), be used to prove or disprove the existence of a being outside the natural world, such as God -- Richard Dawkins notwithstanding.

Stein is already off on the wrong track, through a combination of half-grasped science and misappropriation of terms. We continue:

Darwinism, the notion that the history of organisms was the story of the survival of the fittest and most hardy, and that organisms evolve because they are stronger and more dominant than others, is a perfect example of the age from which it came: the age of Imperialism. [This is a bizarre misapprehension of the theory even when the Origin of Species was published in 1859, let alone today. How "dominant" is a shrew or a sponge? "Fittest" means best able to survive and reproduce in that environment.] When Darwin wrote, it was received wisdom that the white, northern European man was destined to rule the world. This could have been rationalized as greed -- i.e., Europeans simply taking the resources of nations and tribes less well organized than they were. It could have been worked out as a form of amusement of the upper classes and a place for them to realize their martial fantasies. (Was it Shaw who called Imperialism “…outdoor relief for the upper classes?”) [I don't know. Was it? What makes Mr. Stein believe Shaw said or wrote that? I certainly can't find it in any standard book of quotations or on the internet.]

But it fell to a true Imperialist, from a wealthy British family on both sides, married to a wealthy British woman, writing at the height of Imperialism in the UK, when a huge hunk of Africa and Asia was “owned” (literally, owned, by Great Britain) to create a scientific theory that rationalized Imperialism. [And this is nonsense on stilts; evolutionary theory has nothing whatever to do with "imperialism" or racism or Naziism; this is cotton-candy reasoning that dissolves upon contact into nothing but a bad aftertaste.] By explaining that Imperialism worked from the level of the most modest organic life up to man, and that in every organic situation, the strong dominated the weak and eventually wiped them out, Darwin offered the most compelling argument yet for Imperialism. [Wrong again; the better-reproducing weak will wipe out the less-reproducing strong.] It was neither good nor bad, neither Liberal nor Conservative, but simply a fact of nature. In dominating Africa and Asia, Britain was simply acting in accordance with the dictates of life itself. He was the ultimate pitchman for Imperialism.

This is so wrong, it's maddening. Charles Darwin never used his evolutionary theory to pitch or even justify imperialism; nor did he ever agitate for eugenics programs. His cousin, Francis Galton, invented the idea of eugenics by applying Darwinian ideas to societies... but even he never proposed the government eugenics programs that riddled fascist, Marxist, Nazi, and Progressivist societies. And Darwin himself was skeptical of the expansion.

The philosophy (not science!) of "social Darwinism" was created after Darwin's death by Progressivists, as our hypothetical purist noted; liberals appropriated the term during FDR's administration to attack Capitalism, conflating it with racism and imperialism. Darwin himself was not an imperialist, certainly not in the mold of, say, Rudyard Kipling or Winston Churchill.

But to Ben Stein and Michael Medved, evolutionary theory equals "Darwinism" (similarly, one must presume that quantum mechanics and special relativity are aspects of Newtonism, and I got my graduate degree in Euclidism); Darwinism equals social Darwinism; and social Darwinism is Naziism; ergo... Seig heil!

Evolution by natural selection is the most maligned theory in history; every political hack or philosophy monger twists the science to suit his own prejudices: The lefties twist it to indict Capitalism and individualism; Stein twists it to indict scientific "imperialism" that stands in the way of teaching Judeo-Christian religious precepts as science in the public schools. This saddens me, because I love so many other aspects of Ben Stein's conservatism.

An even purer purist than our previous purists might note -- as Jonah Goldberg did -- that socialists in general, including Progressivists and liberals but not Capitalists, were the real "social Darwinists;" they believed in abortion or sterilization of "defectives" and euthanasia for the handicapped, and suchlike examples of eugenics programs. You can hardly get more "socially Darwinist" than that.

Said purer purists would also argue that the Third Reich in general and Adolf Hitler in particular were not noted for their comprehensive understanding of basic science... you know, that whole "the earth is a hollow sphere and we live on the inside of it" thingie, and the moon being made of ice, and all that "race-science" stuff with its heirarchy of superior to inferior races, and their weird idea that any scientific theory that had a Jew anywhere among its developers was "Jew science" and must be banned. Therefore they could not possibly be exemplars of biological evolutionary theory. Nazis had no more idea of what evolutionary biology actually held than does my dog Scrimshaw... and he's been dead for twenty years.

Fascists, Communists, Progressivists, socialists, and liberals (and conservatives like Ben Stein) have utterly misunderstood Darwin's original, long supplemented if not supplanted thesis; and they are not even aware of the decades of refinement (even by the 1920s) that reshaped it. When you point it out to them, they see this constant refinement of the model as inconstancy; they contrast it negatively to the constancy of Biblical values and use that as another club to bash evolution: If the theory keeps changing, it's an admission that it was wrong; and there's no reason to believe that the current version is any better! But the Bible never changes (heh); it's very permanence proves its value and truth.

The absolute purest of the pure would point out that the entire Steinian argument on this point boils down to:

  1. Nazis were social Darwinists;
  2. Social Darwinism sounds superficially similar to Darwinism, our misleading pet name for modern evolutionary theory;
  3. Therefore, evolutionary theory has a disturbing link to Naziism, and those who believe in it are akin to Nazis.

Here, try this one:

  1. Supporters of Intelligent Design eat carbohydrates;
  2. Carbohydrates sound superficially similar to hydrocarbons, the principal constituents of petroleum (oil) and natural gas;
  3. Oil sometimes leaks, producing oil slicks;
  4. Oil slicks kill baby seals;
  5. Vicious fur hunters also kill baby seals;
  6. Therefore, supporters of Intelligent Design have a disturbing link to evil baby-seal clubbers.

I suppose I'll have to see the movie, but I'll tell you in advance what I predict it will show: endless sequences of "atheists" and "secular humanists" being asked rude and scientifically ignorant questions in a querulous, argumentative, and incoherent manner. And when those atheists (meaning anyone who believes in modern evolutionary theory, since Stein appears to believe that faith and mainstream science are fundamentally at odds) and secular humanists (meaning "generic badthing") can't answer the paralogical question, the IDer will proclaim victory and do a triumphant dance.

But just in case I'm wrong, I'll go see the movie. Just in case all the ID books and articles and pamphlets I've read just didn't have the proper killer argument, I'll go. I'll go just so that no one can say I didn't give ID a fair shake -- which, by the way, ID has never given evolutionary theory; I've yet to encounter an IDer who actually understands the (fairly low-level) science behind the basic concepts of modern evolutionary theory and statistical mathematics... and without that background, it's no wonder "Darwinism" sounds weird and implausible. It's like trying to explain viral infection to someone who believes disease is caused by the evil spells of witches. Here, again, is the man himself (Stein, not Darwin):

Darwinism is still very much alive, utterly dominating biology. Despite the fact that no one has ever been able to prove [to the satisfaction of those who reject evolution for religious reasons] the creation of a single distinct species by Darwinist means, Darwinism dominates the academy and the media. Darwinism also has not one meaningful word to say on the origins of organic life, a striking lacuna in a theory supposedly explaining life. [But not so striking in a theory explaining how contemporary species of life evolved from earlier species of life. Evolutionary theory makes no claim to explain the ultimate origin of life; that is left for other theories and hypotheses -- as it should be.]

Alas, Darwinism has had a far bloodier life span than Imperialism. [Imperialism killed tens of thousands during the crusades and the Inquisition, hundreds of thousands in the British, Spanish, and Belgian empires, and millions under Communist imperialism. How many people have been killed by rampaging biologists?] Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism, a form of racism so vicious that it countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups in the name of speeding along the evolutionary process. [Either Stein argues that Darwin approved of such a use -- which would be a complete fabrication -- or Stein must admit that he is deliberately trying to make fools of us all.]

Now, a few scientists are questioning Darwinism on many fronts. I wonder how long Darwinism’s life span will be.

Considering that "Darwinism" (evolutionary biology) has already withstood 149 years of hostile questioning by real scientists, I doubt that a few months of interrogation by religiously motivated ID zealots is going to shake the theory's foundations.

The central confusion, as always, is the one so thoroughly refuted by geneticist and staunch Christian believer Francis Collins in his seminal work, the Language of God: Stein and Medved both clearly believe that faith in God is incompatible with belief in evolution... as if God could not have created human beings by the mechanism of evolution. Collins shows the nonsensical theology behind this "argument by personal incredulity," as well as debunking the numerous examples of "well, Darwinism can't explain the evolution of this specific organ or organelle," upon which ID depends for its smattering of vaguely scientific arguments.

Until both conservatives and socialist atheists drop that absurd, self-created dichotomy, which does not exist in reality, we will continue to be subjected to such offensive claptrap as both Intelligent Design -- and books like Richard Dawkins' the God Delusion.

More's the pity.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 18, 2008, at the time of 5:23 PM | Comments (49) | TrackBack

November 15, 2006

Stem-Cell Two-Step - UPDATED November 16th

Media Madness , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

UPDATE November 16th, 2006, 00:23: see below.

Here's another example of the truculence of the drive-by media as it relates to scientific truths they just don't want to hear...

Here's the headline:

Stem Cells Help Dogs With Dystrophy

Wow, maybe there's hope for all those MD sufferers. How can those wicked right-to-lifers stand in the way of cures for so many? The article continues:

In promising new research, stem cells worked remarkably well at easing symptoms of muscular dystrophy in dogs, an experiment that experts call a significant step toward treating people.

"It's a great breakthrough for all of us working on stem cells for muscular dystrophy," said researcher Johnny Huard of the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the work.

Sharon Hesterlee, vice president of translational research at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, called the result one of the most exciting she's seen in her eight years with the organization. Her group helped pay for the work.

She stressed that it's not yet clear whether such a treatment would work in people, but said she had "cautious optimism" about it.

Two dogs that were severely disabled by the disease were able to walk faster and even jump after the treatments.

At this point, a certain suspicion starts to creep through my brain. This is odd; why do they keep saying "stem cells," without any attached adjective?

Finally, six paragraphs into the story, they drop the other shoe -- the one alert readers must already have figured out for themselves:

The study was published online Wednesday by the journal Nature. It used stem cells taken from the affected dogs or other dogs, rather than from embryos. For human use, the idea of using such "adult" stem cells from humans would avoid the controversial method of destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells.

No kidding!

Of course, the headline should have read: Adult Stem Cells Help Dogs With Dystrophy; that would have been the more accurate (and more responsible) head. But that's not what AP wanted to hear... so the magic word just softly and suddenly vanished away from the headline and the first few uses in the body. And after clearly identifying the particular stem cells as adult stem cells in one paragraph, the remaining paragraphs simply refer to "stem cells" again (unqualified), as if political amnesia has already set in.

Now, please don't misunderstand: I'm all in favor of stem-cell research, including embryonic stem-cell research. Now that we have a method (which needs more work, of course) to extract embryonic stem stem cells without destroying the embryo, it should be a no-brainer; but even when we had to kill an embryo to get the stem cell, I personally supported it. (I do not believe human personhood begins as conception.)

But I'm equally in favor of research into the use of adult stem cells and placental stem cells... and I don't have to lie -- even by omission -- about the tremendous strides we've already made in those two areas, just to puff up the flimsy resume of embryonic stem cells.

(Mind, it's the "flimsy" resume of a 22 year old who just graduated magna cum laude from Cal Tech or MIT, but hasn't had his first job yet. It's not nothing; it's just not yet proven in the real world.)

I hate dissembling, and this article dissembles like a politician caught with his hand in the nookie jar. Come on, AP; give credit where it's due.

UPDATE: Commenter David has a post on his own blog about another tremendously exciting cure that could possibly come from adult stem cells: injecting a coronary patient's own stem cells (from bone marrow) into the artery that was blocked. The stem cells appear to repair the patient's heart, making future attacks and also degenerative heart failure much less likely.

This follows on earlier research showing that a coronary patient's own stem cells can help repair damaged heart muscle even before a heart attack.

This is especially interesting to me, as my good grandfather had multiple strokes and heart attacks, one of which killed him at the young age of 70... on New Year's Eve many years ago, sadly. (My other grandfather chewed broken glass and bayed at the moon.)

I suspect this history puts me at risk, though my physicals have never found any heart damage or coronary occlusion.

I'm a great believer in modern medicine (and modern sanitation, and modern preservatives in food); I always go to my annual physical... and if you don't, if you find excuses to skip it or postpone it, remember this:

Those who do not utilize their access to modern medicine have no advantage over those who have no access to modern medicine!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 15, 2006, at the time of 7:42 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

August 23, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cells: Static Analysis Strikes Out Again

Politics - National , Predictions , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

Nobody that I've read or heard has a political objection to adult stem-cell (ASC) research, nor even placental stem-cell (PSC) research; many people have a gigantic objection to embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research -- but the only objection I've seen is that, using traditional stem-cell techniques, a five day old embryo is actually killed to get at the hundred or so stem cells it contains.

But once again, the march of technology has demonstrated that it always has the ability to grab the cards off the table and reshuffle them, even right in the middle of the hand:

In an innovative move, a biotech company has found a new way of making stem cells without destroying embryos, touting it as a way to defuse one of the country's fiercest political and ethical debates.

Some opponents of the research said the method still doesn't satisfy their objections and many stem cell scientists and their supporters called it inefficient and politically wrong-headed.

But a spokeswoman for President Bush, who vetoed legislation last month that would have allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, called it a step in the right direction.

And Robert Lanza, an executive with Advanced Cell Technology, which created the new stem cell lines, said: "This will make it far more difficult to oppose this research."

I do object rather strongly to that last sentence; not because it's not true -- it is -- but because Lanza's clear implication is that opponents of ESC aren't really sincere, they're just looking for some excuse to stop research. But I think Macaca just clumsily worded what he meant to say.

So what are the objections from both sides? They're pretty ludicrous and illogical, and I doubt that either represents more than a tiny fraction of each faction. First, the objection of some of those opposed to ESC:

Meanwhile, hard-line opponents of stem cell science argue that the technique solves nothing, because even the single cell removed by the new approach could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human. Some also object over the possibility the procedure could harm the embryo in an unknown way.

The method "raises more ethical questions than it answers," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

(That second objection, that it "raises more ethical questions than it answers," is such a cowardly shuck that I won't even bother responding.)

The idea that a stem cell "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human" would be equally true for individual adult and placental stem cells; do these same people oppose research on those, too? And theoretically, if the science of human cloning advances, a stray cell in saliva or a drop of blood (which contains leukocytes) "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human." Should it be against moral law to spit or bleed?

The silliness factor is that individual cells are already removed from embryos for testing purposes, to check for various genetic disorders; it's called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In fact, that is where the procedure under discussion arose. During any in vitrio fertilization, doctors can extract a single cell from any (or all) of the developing embryos for testing purposes; this is done about 1,000 times a year anyway, to check for fatal genetic conditions.

What Advanced Cell discovered was that if the doctor allows each of the extracted cells to divide once before testing, and then tests only one of the two cells of each pair, the other can be encouraged to grow into a stem-cell line.

None of the developing embryos is harmed, and no extra embryos are created in order to get stem cells.

Note to forestall a possible objection: the mere fact that a cell divides -- that's what all cells do! -- does not mean that it would suddenly turn into an embryo. You skin cells divide, but they never turn into little fetuses hanging off your body like fruit on a tree. The cell that is removed could divide many times, but it would not spontaneously turn into another embryo.

In theory, such testing could also be done on embryos in the womb; I don't know if we can do that today, but if not, we will be able to fairly soon.

At the moment, if doctors find fatal or severe genetic disorders when they test the other cell in the pair (not the one making a stem-cell line), the usual "treatment" is to destroy the embryo; but that is changing, as more and more conditions can be corrected in utero, leading to a healthy baby. And this ability will only increase, as microsurgery and better gene replacement therapies allow us to, e.g., cure Cystic Fibrosis in the womb before the baby is even born... and without killing any babies.

Does that mean that the same people who object to ESC that does not kill the embryo will also object even to removing a single cell from a high-risk embryo to test for the CF gene, simply because in theory, that single cell might, if implanted in a uterus and given certain stimulation, be coaxed into developing into an embryo?

In any event, extracting an embryonic stem-cell line neither increases the number of embryos nor does it make it any more or less likely that a particular embryo, either in utero or in vitrio, will be aborted. Growing an ESC line from those embryos does not appear to affect their fate in any way.

Religious opposition on the grounds that an extracted cell "could theoretically grow into a full-fledged human" is pure insanity, in my opinion. It's like saying that we mustn't perform organ transplants because there's always a faint chance that the donor, if frozen, could be revived and brought back to life in the future.

The Catholic Church has other objections:

Though the new procedure may satisfy the president's objections to stem cell research, it does not meet the ethical standards of the Roman Catholic church, which opposes both PGD and in vitro fertilization.

If the procedure could be done in utero, that would eliminate the Church's objection on the basis of their condemnation of in vitrio fertilization. That leaves only their objection to PGD itself... but that, then, is nothing more than the objection above to testing on the ludicrous grounds that theoretically, the extracted cell -- which is not an embryo -- could be turned into an embryo.

I suspect that the Catholic objection to PGD is entirely because it's normally done in the in vitrio environment, where a bunch of embryos are created in order to implant one or two, with the rest slated for destruction. If PGD were done on a single embryo in utero, and if that embryo were not subsequently aborted, I think the Church's objection to PGD would fall.

But what about the small fringe on the other side? What's their problem with this new technique? Amazingly, it's even stupider than that above:

Some stem cell researchers complain that the new approach, though it may hold future promise, simply isn't as efficient as their current method of creating stem cells. That procedure involves the destruction of embryos after about five days of development, when they consist of about 100 cells....

President Bush has said that he personally opposes any research that sacrifices embryonic life, even to save an existing person. In August 2001 the president limited federal funding to research on a few dozen stem cell lines that had been created up to that point.

Scientists complain that the decree has severely crippled progress in the field. But recent developments have moved them toward their twin goals of attracting non-federal money for stem cell research and overturning the restrictions.

Several states, including California, New Jersey and Illinois, have set up ways to fund the research. A number of Democratic candidates in this year's congressional elections are focusing on the issue.

The research at Advanced Cell Technology subverts those efforts, [Glenn] McGee said. [McGee is director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, N.Y.]

In other words, McGee objects to this procedure because, by making it possible to create ESC lines without destroying embryos, it therefore makes it politically harder to get funding to destroy embryos! The only conclusion I can draw is that for Glenn McGee, the most important goal is killing embryos -- not creating stem cell lines.

This imbroglio illustrates something I have been saying for (literally) decades: the single safest prediction you can make is that in a modern, civilized society, the future will be very different from the past.

This was not always true; in the Middle Ages, for example, it was a good bet that the life of an ordinary person, whether prince, peasant, or merchant, would be almost exactly the same in A.D. 600, A.D. 700, and A.D. 800. Oh, his country's allies may change, and the wars might be against different enemies; but his day to day life would be just the same as in his great8-grandfather's time.

Similarly, in many countries today that are not "modern civilized societies," such as Afghanistan, the life of a peon still hasn't changed much. Maybe they use a tractor instead of a bull to pull the plough... but probably not.

Nor is the prediction simply a tautology; we don't simply define a "modern, civilized society" as one in which the future differs from the past. There is certainly a feedback loop; but there are very identifiable differences in thinking long before there are widespread advances in technology: technology may influence thinking, but it was created by the mind of Man -- and that mind had to be a modern, civilized mind before it could create a different future.

The change in worldview comes first.

Ignoring this reality, acting as if the march -- at times, the sprint -- of technology will not affect the "great moral issues" of the day, ignores the fact that no moral quandry is pure... all must exist within the framework of the contemporary "now." Ignoring the advance of technology when prognosticating the future is the ultimate in "static analysis," and it's a prescription for quick humiliation.

Few remember, but it was an enormous moral quandry when Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei asserted that the Earth revolved around the sun, rather that the other way 'round. In fact, it even shocked the moral senses when Galileo announced that Jupiter had moons... since if some heavenly bodies could orbit something other than the Earth, than any of them could -- including the Earth itself.

The reaction among some theologians was even more hysterical than the reaction to the well-proven theory of evolution by natural selection is today. But within a relatively short period of time, the telescope was ubiquitous... and that meant that any educated person likely knew somebody who had access to a telescope; and each could see for himself that Jupiter did, indeed have moons, and that our own moon did indeed have impact craters, and so forth. Eventually, evidence reached a tipping point where the Church could no longer deny what everyone could see with his own eyes.

The advance of technology rewrote the moral dilemma: rather than insist that believers must reject the Copernican system, theologians were forced instead to integrate the new scientific knowledge into theology (which of course they managed to do without destroying belief). This time, technology threw the game to the scientists, against (some of) the theologians (the Jesuits never had any real objection to Copernicus or Galileo).

The moral quandry of abortion might be blown wide open by a relatively "evolutionary" development: the abillity to transfer an embryo or even fetus from one woman's womb to another with no more inconvenience than an abortion. My buddy Vic Koman wrote presciently about this in his novel Solomon's Knife. If it were just as easy to donate an unwanted fetus to a couple who could not conceive but desperately wanted a child, the entire abortion question would shift on its axis -- because there would no longer be any argument in favor of abortion, except in the most extraordinary cases.

Want the baby out of your body? Fine; it's gone. Oh, wait, you insist that it be killed? Sorry, but once you choose to give it up, you give up all rights to control what happens to it after it leaves your womb. This time, a likely advance in techology will, in the near future, toss the game to the theologians; the big losers will be secular feminists, who really have no other catechism left besides the legality of abortion.

And now, in real time, we're seeing the moral dilemma of embryonic stem cell research being blown wide open by a company that developed a method of extracting ESCs without damaging the underlying embryo. Is it perfect? not yet. So give it a couple of years; perhaps by then, it will be possible to do the procedure in utero. The point remains: whether in 2006 or 2008, the moral objection goes away... due to a technological advance.

We live in a world where a science-fictional mentality is mandatory; "realism" demands it.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 23, 2006, at the time of 4:21 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

May 2, 2006

In Sickness and In Health

Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

I was surprised at the good job done by both Associated Press and Reuters reporting on the new British study showing that Americans tend to be a lot sicker than Brits -- even taking confounding factors into account (such as race, sex, rates of smoking and drinking, income, and education). The early and easy temptation is to leap to the conclusion that the British are healthier because their country is more socialist... but by and large, both articles pooh-poohed that knee-jerk "explanation."

First the bad news; from Reuters:

Considerably more middle-aged Americans suffer from chronic illnesses than their British counterparts, probably because more Americans are obese, researchers said on Tuesday.

"You don't expect the health of middle-aged people in these two countries to be too different, but we found that the Americans are a lot less healthy than the English," said James Smith, a RAND economist and one of the study's authors.

An analysis of health surveys showed the prevalence of diabetes and cancer were nearly twice as high among white American 55- to 64-year-olds than British in that age group.

Heart disease was 50 percent more common in the United States than in Britain, and rates of stroke, high blood pressure and lung disease were more common among middle-aged Americans as well....

Overall, 15 percent of middle-aged Americans suffered from heart disease compared to 10 percent of their British counterparts, diabetes afflicted 12.5 percent of Americans versus 7 percent of the British, and cancer hit 9.5 percent of the Americans compared to 5.4 percent of the British.

The surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2003.

AP adds:

The gap between the countries holds true for educated and uneducated, rich and poor.

"At every point in the social hierarchy there is more illness in the United States than in England and the differences are really dramatic," said study co-author Dr. Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at University College London in England.

The study, appearing in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, adds context to the already-known fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet trails in rankings of life expectancy.

The United States spends about $5,200 per person on health care while England spends about half that in adjusted dollars.

"Everybody should be discussing it: Why isn't the richest country in the world the healthiest country in the world?" Marmot said.

"It's something of a mystery," said Richard Suzman of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the study.

Now the good news: both AP and Reuters touched on the glib suggestion that the lack of socialized medicine (National Health Care) in the U.S. accounts for the health differences... but only to shoot it down. Reuters, for example:

"The less education and income people had the worse their health," study co-author Michael Marmot of University College London said.

"We cannot blame either bad lifestyle or inadequate medical care as the main culprits in these socioeconomic differences in health. We should look for explanation to the circumstances in which people live and work."

The AP article expands upon this, making clear the distinction between Britain's socialized medicine and America's (more or less) free-market system cannot explain the health differences:

However, Britain's universal health-care system shouldn't get credit for better health, Marmot and [Harvard School of Public Health Professor of Public Health Robert] Blendon agreed.

Both said it might explain better health for low-income citizens, but can't account for better health of England's more affluent residents.

Marmot cautioned against looking for explanations in the two countries' health-care systems.

"It's not just how we treat people when they get ill, but why they get ill in the first place," Marmot said.

So if it's not race, sex, age, economic strata, or the rate of smoking or drinking... then what does explain the differences? The major culprit may well be simple obesity. From Reuters:

In weighing the source of the health gap, the researchers said the answer most likely stemmed from higher U.S. rates of obesity and Americans' tendency to avoid exercise -- though the English were catching up.

The prevalence of obesity in the United States rose to 31 percent in 2003 from 16 percent in 1980, while U.K. obesity rates increased to 23 percent from 7 percent in the same period.

"It may be that America's longer history of obesity or differences in childhood experiences create the problems seen among middle-aged Americans," said study co-author James Banks, an economist at University College London.

"This may mean that over time the gap between England and the United States may begin to close."

If true, this is heartening, because obesity -- while not completely avoidable (genetics has a lot to do with it) -- is at least controllable. Even if one is "destined" to gain weight, one can gain it more slowly by watching diet and by exercising.

And the study points to the enormous influence obesity may have on a wide range of debilitating illnesses -- some of which have long been known to be related to obestity (diabetes, heart disease), but also others for which the connection is more obscure, like cancer.

This may spur research into the exact mechanism by which the body creates and maintains fat cells, which may lead to a pharmaceutical breakthrough in weight control and reduction: now that we know it's not just a cosmetic concern, perhaps more serious researchers will get involved in determining the actual cause of weight gain... something beyond the facile idea that people who gain weight must just be lazy pigs who eat too much and watch TV all day.

For my own example, I eat less than my occasional collaborator, Brad Linaweaver; and I certainly exercise far more than he; yet I outweigh him by quite a margin. Like many genetically lucky people, Brad simply does not gain much weight, no matter what he does. Similarly, many Asians gain less weight than Westerners, even when they eat and exercise just as much as their counterparts.

Taken together, these two science articles -- only AP identifies the authors, Carla K. Johnson from Chicago and Mike Stobbe from Atlanta -- are well written, factual, and without any of the usual political bias of the two wire services. Great job, everyone!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 2, 2006, at the time of 1:37 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 6, 2006

Bam! Pow! To the Moon!

Science - Good , Science Fiction
Hatched by Dafydd

When President Bush first proposed a "return to the Moon" program at NASA, I was a bit skeptical. It's traditional for presidents to propose grandiose plans for space exploration, only to forget all about them moments later.

But today, when Bush's budget hit Congress, I was very pleasantly shocked to discover that Bush is making good on his promise: the budget realigns NASA's priorities to throw a lot of monetary and personnel resources into the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV, the Shuttle upgrade), which will be used as part of a manned return to Luna.

President Bush's budget proposal released Monday seeks to give the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $16.8 billion for fiscal year 2007, a 3 percent increase from the year before. Of that, about $5.3 billion in funding will go toward the space agency's science missions.

NASA is trying to fulfill Bush's space exploration vision to build the new Crew Exploration Vehicle that would replace the aging space shuttle fleet and enable a return to the moon by 2018. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a news conference that the budget reflects that priority.

Naturally, this being the Antique Media, they had to toss in the obligatory quote from one of the space-sciences guys at JPL, berating NASA for wasting all that money on human exploration when we could just send a bunch more AI toasters into space and collect all the data we would ever need; Geoffrey Marcy played Grinch this time.

But I don't care. We're going back to the Moon! That's the important part. And eventually, we'll have a permanent station there, then a colony, and finally the human race can move some of its eggs, at least, out of this fragile basket we're in.

Besides, Sachi and I want to go. As the Cocoa Beach Boys might sing, "Luna City, here we come!"

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, February 6, 2006, at the time of 11:19 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

Evolution, ID, and Science - most recent UPDATE Dec 23rd 2005

Science , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

A powerful lot of arguments were advanced against my position in an earlier post, Unintelligent Redesign of Creationism; I'll essay to answer as many as I can in this one. Note that I will probably return to this post and update it now and again, as people come up with new arguments... so if you're tickled by this sort of debate, bookmark the permalink to this post --

-- and return often... in addition to the normal checking of Big Lizards for new things, of course! We don't want to lose any custom.

I won't be listing the names of everyone who offers an argument, because it's too much work. Just assume that if you make some argument, many other people have the same argument in mind.

Let me first get the silly non-arguments out of the way; I'll clear the detritus, and then we can concentrate on the salient points:

1. What business is it of a federal court to decide what is or is not science?

This question is akin to the Democrats in 2000 demanding to know why the federal courts were deciding how to count votes in Florida, and the answer is identical: because somebody filed a lawsuit in federal court.

Whenever such a suit is filed, the very first thing the district court must decide is whether the person filing the suit has standing to do so.

I'm not a lawyer, though I sometimes play a "sea lawyer" in this blog... but my understanding is that "standing" means a person has a legitimate reason to bring the lawsuit in the first place. If you get wrongfully fired, I can't prosecute a lawsuit to get you reinstated, because I have no connection to you; you're the one who suffered the loss, so it's up to you to decide whether to sue. But in this case, the lawsuit was filed by the parents of children in the Dover public schools, children who were required to read the ID-supporting statement... so the parents (as guardians of the children) definitely had standing.

The next thing the court decides is whether it, itself, has jurisdiction: that is, whether it is legally empowered to decide the question at the heart of the lawsuit. In this case, the parents alleged that the public schools, which are a branch of the government, were preaching a particular religion to their kids -- which, they alleged, was a violation of the First-Amendment rights of the children (hence the parents) not to have the government establish a religion.

Now "establishing a religion" means something quite different in 2005 than it meant in 1789; back then, it literally meant creating a Church of America, like the Church of England. But today, it means any attempt by the federal (or state, now) government to promote a particular religious belief as the correct one.

Since this is a federal right found in the federal Constitution, it's up to a federal judge to finally decide whether the ID requirement "established" a religion, as forbidden by the First Amendment. That's why a federal judge had to decide whether ID was science, as its proponents claimed it was -- or a religion, as the plaintiffs claimed it was.

2. Of course creationism/creation science/intelligent design is a science! Just go to the Institute for Creation Research and read their arguments!

I will have to stop you right there: I have probably read more creationist literature than you have! But I will not accept any argument that is a variation of "go read this huge web site or this lengthy tome, and I'm sure you find that I'm right and you're wrong." If you can't summarize the argument succinctly right here, I won't address it.

I have no intention of doing your homework for you.

3. Judge Jones was needlessly insulting, proving that he's biased against ID.

As Francis Urquhart says, "You may very well be right; I couldn't possibly comment." This is an irrelevant non-sequitur: Judge Jones may be the biggest butthead in the world, but we're not arguing that point. We're arguing whether evolutionary theory and/or ID are sciences.

4. Maybe ID can't be scientifically proven, but neither can evolution.

You've misunderstood the point of the exercise. In fact, no scientific theory can be "proven." A theory can be disproven, but not proven; at any moment, the best you can say is "it hasn't been disproven yet." And in nearly every case, a scientific model soon will be disproven, to be replaced by an even better model of the physical universe: so it goes.

That is another formulation of the "tentativity" test for science: the best you can ever say about any scientific theory is that it's the best model of the available data you have at this point. The tentativity of science is not a weakness, however; I've had arguments where my opponent has claimed that the very fact that science "keeps changing what it's saying" proves that it's "false."

On the contrary, tentativity is science's greatest strength: a scientific theory simply constructs a model of the universe -- one that explains all previous measured data and predicts new measurements. Thus, gravitational theory explains the observed fact that if you let an object go in a gravitational field (and everything everywhere is in some gravitational field), it moves in a certain way. The theory allows you to predict how an object will move if you drop it or throw it ten minutes from now.

But as new measurements are made, new data produced, you will always find odd bits and pieces that don't fit. The scientific response is to accept the data -- and modify the theory to take it into account. (Of course, your new theory must also take into account all the earlier data, which hasn't gone away!) That is why science is so much more accurate than, say, astrology or phrenology: because it's constantly improving itself by tossing out incorrect, primative formulations in favor of more accurate, more complex formulations.

That is also its "falsifiability," by the way: if objects started behaving differently from what the theory of gravity predicted -- if objects fell along a spiral, for example, or any other curve besides a conic section -- then that would falsify the current theory of gravity; physicists would have to throw it out and come up with a new theory that explained not only the new, weird behavior... but also the thousands of years of previous data!

So nobody can "prove" that evolutionary theory is correct; the question is, can you prove that it is not? I can certainly prove that Intelligent Design does not fit the model of science; can you prove that modern evolutionary theory is likewise not "science?" Read on for that exact argument!

5. The scientific arguments for a young earth are obviously so unanswerable that Darwinists never try to answer them!

Perhaps because -- as above -- the creationists never try to enunciate them! And one quick point: there are no "Darwinists," no more than contemporary Christians are "Paulists" or constitutional scholars are "Madisonites." Charles Darwin published his first cut at the theory of natural selection, the Origin of Species, in 1859; since that time, evolutionary biologists, chemists, microbiologists, and other evolutionary scientists have expanded, altered, refined, and reworked the basic evolutionary ideas for 146 years. Darwin would not recognize the theory today. Nobody is going to argue "Darwinism" with you; try arguing against contemporary evolutionary theory, if you want to be taken seriously.

Now, having disposed of the preliminaries, we get into the real nitty-gritty.

6. Maybe ID isn't science, but neither is evolutionary theory. How is it falsifiable, for example?

Evolutionary theory -- hereafter ET -- is very falsifiable, because it makes a great many predictions! Any one of those predictions could turn out to be wrong... which would, by definition, "falsify" the current ET.

(a) For example, anybody can go out and find fossils. ET predicts that complex creatures evolved from simple creatures; so the earlier in time you look, the simpler the creatures would be. In general, except where geological folding has occurred, the deeper a sediment layer, the older it is. Thus, we should expect, under ET, to find that the deeper you dig, the simpler should be the plant and animal fossils.

(Note that geological folding actually flips sedimentary layers; but you can easily see this and avoid it: you will actually see the sediment layers flop over, like folding a Japanese futon, and the colored sedimentary layers -- and the fossil record -- will be inverted in the folded-over section.)

This is what geological folding looks like

Geological folding

Therefore, if we were to dig in some (non-folded) site and find that the deeper fossils were more complex than the shallower ones, or that the complexity was mixed at all levels, this would cause a volcanic explosion in the field of ET. It would certainly falsify contemporary theory!

Some creationists claim to have found such instances; evolutionary scientists have examined these claims and found them unsubstantiated. If you want to cite such sites, we can discuss the specifics at that time.

Fortunately for ET, however, it is in fact true that the deeper you dig, the simpler the fossilized organisms you find. Surprised? You will not be told this in creationist literature; they adroitly skirt the subject, except where they point to this or that tiny area where they (falsely) claim the fossil record is mixed.

(b) ET also postulates an "old Earth," an Earth that is at least hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years old. But we have other methods of dating rock formations that do not depend in any way or form on ET: radioactive dating, for example (not carbon; that doesn't go back far enough). There are also discoveries in astonomy that reflect upon the age of the Earth and the solar system. And astrophysics and geophysics generate theories on planetary formation that tell, e.g., how long a planet must cool before its crust is the temperature found on Earth, or how long a methane-ammonia atmosphere would last before blue-green algae could convert it to oxygen-nitrogen. None of these sciences were developed from ET; they are entirely separate, depending upon separate observations of different phenomena analyzed using different mathematical formulas.

If these alternative methods of dating the earth were to produce "young Earth" results, that would falsify evolutionary theory, big time! But in fact, they all come up with about the same answer: the Earth (the solar system) is a few billion years old.

(c) Finally, if it's really true that later species evolved from older species, then they should have obviously derivative DNA. The DNA molecule was utterly unsuspected in Darwin's day; it was discovered only in the last century, and described in the 1950s by James D. Watson and Francis Crick. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a complex, twisted molecule that uses an arbitrary code of four "nucleotides," which are adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. (There is one more nucleotide, uracil, found in some odd viruses.) The body uses the code of these four nucleotides to determine genetic structure.

If the DNA of human beings was completely different from the DNA of chimpanzees, or alligators, or petunias, or sponges, this would be a fatal blow to ET. There is no reason why it should be the same, if the species were created separately; there is no reason why one nucleotide could not be substituted for another, and still serve the same purpose of coding genetic structure.

Yet it turns out that all non-viral, non-anaerobic-bacterial life on the planet uses the same four nucleotides in the same coding sequence. In fact, the closer (in ET) one species is to another -- say humans and chimpanzees -- the more of their individual DNAs are identical: we share about 97% of our DNA structure with the chimps, for example.

So there are three completely separate methods by which ET is falsifiable; yet each of the three alternate sciences yields results that perfectly mesh with the basics of ET. And where there are discrepencies, evolutionary scientists do what they are supposed to do: they change the theory to take into account the new observations. (That is one thing that defines a science.)

Thus, contemporary ET is precisely the refinement of earlier "Darwinism" that survived the falsification test... thus it is, by definition, falsifiable -- unlike ID, which by its very nature cannot be disproven, since it depends upon an intervention by a sentient, supernatural being that could have done anything, including laying false "evidence" to mislead us.

That is enough argumentation for right now; I will return to this post periodically as more questions arise.

7. There are simply too many potential mutations, all but a tiny fraction fatal, for so much evolutionary change to have occurred in only a couple billion years.

There are so many possible mutations -- the figure 10^50 is bandied about -- and only a small number that would be viable and advantageous, and so many of the latter that would have to occur, that it’s mathematically impossible for evolution to have happened in only a few billion years.

Richard Dawkins (among others) has indeed answered this question, the creationists have completely misunderstood the answer -- which leads me to suspect they really don’t understand the underlying math as well as they pretend. The point is that the laws of chemistry and biology act as constraints or filters that prevent the vast majority of those 10^50 possible changes from occurring, restricting the possibility of mutation and other forms of variation to just a sliver of those possibilities.

This is not “functionally equivalent to the generic ‘intelligent designer’ of ID,” as one commenter put it; we see such constraints all the time in non-life physical science: a planet in orbit could mathematically go in any direction at any time; since there are an infinite number of directions, and the planet would have to select one particular direction out of those infinite numbers to keep along its orbit, and since it would have to do this an infinite number of times every second, one might naively say that probability that the planet would follow its orbit by sheer, random chance is zero.

But of course, it’s not “sheer, random chance” that keeps the planets in their orbits; that job is done by the law of gravitation: the planet follows its particular elliptical orbit (bumpy elliptical, since it’s tugged by all the other planets and -- in theory, at least -- all the other bodies in the universe) because its choices of motion are constrained or filtered down to only one.

Similarly, during ontogeny, the cells in a developing body of, say, a horse are constrained by the horse DNA present from the moment of conception. At a deeper level, atoms cannot spontaneously become different atoms because that violates fundamental laws of the universe (except due to radioactive decay -- which is also strictly constrained by its own laws; an oxygen atom cannot suddenly turn into a helium atom at whim).

Molecules cannot spontaneously become any molecule they want, or even any molecule that contains the same atoms: water (H2O), which consists of hydrogen and oxygen -- cannot suddenly turn into hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), even though that also consists of hydrogen and oxygen.

Physics, astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, biology, and evolutionary biology are all disciplines built around discovering these “constraints” and formulating them as physical laws. But they all act to one purpose, as far as ET is concerned: to reduce the number of available choices for “mutation” down to only a few possibilities... and the “wrong” (unhelpful) choices do, in fact, wildly outnumber the “right” (helpful) choices -- most mutations are fatal; only a tiny, tiny percent confer a reproductive advantage. That is why evolution takes such a large number of generations... but not an impossibly large number.

8. Doesn't ET violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy)?

By the Second Law of Thermodynamics and by information theory, structures always move towards decay, from more complex to less complex, from more information to less information; the theory of evolution violates this precept.

Structures in a closed system, dude. The Earth is not a closed system... the sun pumps massive amounts of entropic energy (heat) onto the earth, and it is a small portion of that incoming energy that drives evolution. In addition, the sun itself and all the planets are made up of the remnants and debris from earlier stars; it is also not a closed system. And it is presumptively true that the universe itself, which is (so far as we know) a closed system, is losing information and coherency faster than it’s being created.

As to where it came from in the first place, there is not yet a scientific theory that explains how the Big Bang actually occurred, or what existed before it -- if such terms even have meaning, when whatever existed might have had different physical laws (perhaps even including a different set of thermodynamical laws). Everything I've seen picks up at least a few nanoseconds after the BB itself. Science can only theorize about this particular universe with these specific physical laws.

(There is plenty of room to argue that the Big Bang was actually the fiat lux of the Bible; but that is not a scientific argument, and science should stay out of it.)

9. There is no experimental evidence for speciation; nobody has ever seen a new species arise naturally.

This argument displays a faulty understanding of what “experimental evidence” means. It is not restricted to bubbling chemicals in flasks and beakers. Going to a fossil site and looking at what you find there is an experiment, or more accurately, an observation and measurement.

We find new species all the time, but we cannot say whether they really are new, or we just haven’t found them before. In the timeframes required for evolution, only microbes and insects can really be speciated speedily enough for humans to observe it -- and even then only by the “intelligent design” of humans. What this argument demands is absurd on its face: it requires that we sit and stare at some species for a few decades to see whether it changes, spontaneously, into some other species.

But nobody claims that is how evolution works; first, the vast majority of species on the planet at any particular time won’t change into any other species ever, or at least not in any observable time frame. Second, such changes are so gradual, you might not even notice them until such a long time had passed that the entire generation involved in the observation would have died (and you know what the attention span of kids and grandkids is like). And third, the argument demands that we not use any artificial means to accelerate or constrain the variations, because that wouldn’t be entirely “natural.” The “argument” is actually a clever but completely paralogical attempt to set evolution up to fail by making so many restrictions that the creationists know it would be impossible.

Here is an analogy: until very recently, no modern scientist had ever seen a supernova occur (people in China observed and reported the supernova that created the Crab Nebula, but that was such a long time ago that there were no modern astronomers). So how did we know there had been supernovae?

Because we saw and measured their remnants, and the theory of astrophysics explained where those remnants came from (supernovae) better than any competing theories: that is, the theory of supernovae explained more observations that had already been made and correctly predicted more new observations than any competing theory.

Then just a few years ago, a nova or supernova began (rather, the light from an ancient supernova began to reach us), and by golly, it turned out they really did occur. Astonomers were right.

And of course, scientists could do the same thing to creationists: they could say, “You claim that God is omnipotent; so prove it... tell Him to create a zebra ex nihilio, right now in your living room, while I watch to make sure it really does spring into existence out of nothingness.”

The creationist would of course have to respond by shaking his fist and quoting “do not tempt the Lord thy God,” which you’ll have to admit isn’t really an answer. The correct answer is “omnipotence doesn’t work that way, and according to the Bible, God hasn’t created animals out of nothingness for thousands of years.”

All right; so now you know how it feels!

(Next update will tackle the ever popular misconceptions about the evolution of the eye and the wing....)

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 22, 2005, at the time of 3:55 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

December 5, 2005

A Climate Pact Even I Can Applaud

Future of Energy Production , Scaley Classics , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

Scaley Classic first posted July 28th, 2005, on Captain's Quarters.

This one caught me totally by surprise: China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States (we led the effort) have just signed an international agreement, the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, to "keep climate-changing chemicals out of the atmosphere, especially carbon from fossil fuels." But rather than the Kyoto-Protocol method of setting target goals for emissions reductions that force de-industrialization among complying nations (of which there are actually very few among the Kyoto signers), this new pact aims to reduce emissions by jointly developing new pollutant-control technologies. (Power Line's John Hinderaker, the only "SuperLawyer" currently blogging in the 'sphere, is on the story.)

In a move to counter the Kyoto Protocol that requires mandatory cuts in so-called greenhouse gas emissions, [President Bush] is making the technology pitch as part of a partnership with five Asian and Pacific nations, including China and India. The idea is to get them to commit to cleaner energy production as a way to curtail air pollution that most scientists believe is causing the Earth to warm up.

The administration announced late Wednesday that it has reached an agreement with the five countries to create a new partnership to deploy cleaner technologies whenever possible to produce energy.

I'm one of the most rabid despisers of the global-warming mob (globaloney, that is) and their ham-fisted, Luddite attempt to force industrial Western societies back into the past, the pastoral, preindustrial golden age when everyone was treated with love and respect, and lions lay with lambs in arrangements other than prandial.

So why am I wildly approving of this new greenhouse-gas pact, agreement, whatever one calls it? Well, do the obvious...!

The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol has been a colossal failure for three distinct reasons: first, the treaty insists on reductions so draconian (7% below the signatory's greenhouse-gas emissions in 1990, though the treaty was signed in 1997) that the only way an industrialized nation can be in compliance is, in essence, to dramatically de-industrialize, cutting carbon and carbonoid emissions by cutting energy production itself -- thus severely damaging the economy, leading to job losses (job loss particularly among the elected officials who actually implement such a boneheaded policy). The natural result of this inexorable logic is that nations typically sign Kyoto -- but intend to cheat from the very beginning: the signing is purely symbolic, which of course produces an equally symbolic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The second major flaw is that the Kyoto Protocol consciously and with malice aforethought excluded developing nations -- including China and India, the two largest-population countries in the world, accounting for a third of all the humans on this planet -- from any emissions-reduction requirements at all, at least until 2013. This was the reason that the U.S. Senate, in a non-binding test vote, voted unanimously (97 to 0) against the treaty in 1997.

The United States rejected the 1997 Kyoto pact, which requires reductions by industrial nations of greenhouse emissions. Bush said earlier this month he recognizes that human activity contributes to a warmer Earth, but he continues to oppose the Kyoto treaty that all other major industrialized nations signed because developing nations weren't included in it.

(This is clumsily written, of course; the Times here implies that Kyoto was first rejected under Bush; in fact, although Bill Clinton signed it, he never formally submitted it to the Senate. Nevertheless, the Senate indicated it would reject it if it were presented. When George W. Bush became president, he formally withdrew from the previous administration's signing of the treaty.)

But the most important reason the Kyoto Protocol was doomed from the start is that it was never anything but science by table-pounding: from the initial findings announced by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed at the 2nd Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, to the subsequent IPCC findings, to the Conference of Parties III in Kyoto, Japan, to this day, the treaty was always a political, not a scientific, entity. (Resource: A Brief History of the Kyoto Protocol, on Greenpeace's website.)

Decisions were made by votes, often votes of politicians, not scientists; scientific dissent was squelched. Evidence of other causes for warming besides industrial activity were dismissed; criticisms of the flawed "global circulation models" that were the driving force behind predictions of runaway greenhouse warming were mocked or suppressed; legitimate questions about the extent of "damage" caused by slight warming, mostly occurring during winter nights in the coldest parts of the Earth, were met with hostile accusations instead of hard science; and even evidence of the huge increase in crop growth and resistance to disease and pests that occurs in climates with higher levels of CO2... all were waved away as irrelevant to the urgent task of reducing industrialization in the West. (Strangely, for the New Left, no matter what the problem -- global warming, a new ice age, air pollution, food shortages, food gluts -- the answer is always the same: smash the looms!)

Nor did the Kyoto Protocol ever indicate how a signatory was supposed to reduce its emissions to 7% below their 1990 level (which for the United States today would mean a reduction of more than 20%, because greenhouse gas emissions rose 13% from 1990 to 2003; see p.3 of the linked pdf). Since the primary source of greenhouse-gas emissions is burning carbon-based fuels like oil, gasoline, natural gas, and coal, the only method of reducing emissions by the target goal of Kyoto -- with today's technology and yesterday's political climate, pardon the pun -- would be to stop producing so much energy. But that 13% rise in emissions from 1990-2003 was accompanied by an increase of forty-six percent in gross domestic product over that same period... and it is simply a fact of life that energy use and GDP are inextricably intertwined.

Enter the New Bush Pact

The qualifiers in the preceding paragraph, "today's technology and yesterday's political climate," are not simply weasel-words: there is a solution to the "problem," to whatever extent it may exist, of carbon emissions that does not require de-industrialization with the corresponding drop in GDP and employment. That solution would be to develop new and better technology... primarily energy-producing technology that does not depend upon burning things.

Here is the point: an object that is alive (like wood, other plants, animals, or people), or that used to be alive (coal, oil, and natural gas, which are the remains of prehistoric plankton and plants), contains carbon-hydrogen molecules. When you burn such an object, you tear apart these molecules, combine the carbon with oxygen, and you get carbon dioxide, CO2, plus a whole bunch of energy. It's that energy we use, and it's the carbon dioxide (also formed when we breath) that global-warming phobics fear. There is no way to burn organic materials without producing CO2; the best you can do is try to capture it as it emits from the smokestack.

But there are many methods of producing energy that do not require burning anything... the most effective of which, in the short-to-medium term (0 to 50 years), are hydroelectric generators and nuclear power plants. Since the former are limited by the number of rivers you're willing to dam (which causes rather significant environmental change, to say the least!), we should probably concentrate on the latter. Recent radically improved technologies for nuclear fission, including Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (gas-cooled) and Integral Fast Reactors (liquid-metal cooled), already exist in prototype but lack either funding or a favorable political climate for wide-scale development; this new pact may spur such technologies forward, allowing much cheaper, safer, and more reliable electrical generation that does not require burning organic materials and producing either carbon dioxide or pollution.

(Long-term solutions might include solar-power satellites beaming energy via microwaves back to earth, geothermal energy production that taps into the residual heat at the core of the Earth, nuclear fusion instead of fission, and theoretically, at least, the annihilation of matter-antimatter pairs... though we would have to find a ready-made source for the last, since creating antimatter would of course use up more energy than it would produce; could be useful as a sort of "battery," however, to store large amounts of energy.)

More minor partial-solutions, which by themselves would not help much but wouldn't particularly hurt, either, would include earthbound solar power, windmills, pure hydrogen (from fuel cells, say), and simply more efficient burning of carbon-based fuels -- for example, by the use of high-temperature ceramic engines, which I discussed on Patterico's Pontifications.

All of these would be dramatically helped by the new Asia Pacific Partnership; in other words, while the globaloney crowd pounds the table and simply insists that we somehow magically reduce carbonoid emissions, President Bush is actually offering solutions to the problem: improved technology in the area that matters most -- energy production -- along with ancillary technologies that will help scrub emissions of all sorts (inluding garden-variety pollution) from smokestacks and tailpipes.

And of course, there is always the "Tang and Teflon" phenomenon: any significant investment in scientific research, especially in applied research, will produce technological spinoffs that cannot be predicted, and whose effects cannot be anticipated. Space and missile research produced this little spinoff call personal computers, for example -- and regardless of what Walter Mondale thinks, I don't believe the PC is a passing fad.

Finally, the Asia Pacific Partnership is entirely voluntary: the nations agree to share technology because each country believes it's good for itself; sharing research means quicker and better results. So the pact is self-enforcing: nobody cheats because the incentive is captialism, which entirely favors continuing the partnership.

In the Power Line piece, Hinderaker bemoans the fact that nobody seems to be paying any attention to the numerous ways in which George W. Bush proves his genius by contributing solutions rather than wallowing in problems, as we saw in the last two Democratic administrations.

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

But I believe that Bush honestly doesn't care whether he gets credit or not, so long as long-festering problems are solved. In this sense, George W. Bush is Reaganesque. For that reason, and because of Bush's willingness to think not only big but sideways, he is destined to be remembered as a great president. If this pact helps the human race to think its way out of the many problems associated with fossil fuels (including pollution, poor engine efficiency, and the finite nature of organic byproducts), then Bush may well be remembered for helping to give future generations the gift of limitless clean energy.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 5, 2005, at the time of 4:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 30, 2005

Paging Captain Nemo...

Science - Good
Hatched by Sachi

"They seek him here, they seek him there...."

A few years ago, I saw a documentary about a scientific team from some European country (possibly France) and their effort to photograph a living giant squid. They picked the season carefully and searched an area where some dead squid had been found, but the search was ultimately unsuccessful.

Since then, nobody had ever gotten a good photo of a living giant squid. They're phantom creatures, almost legendary, and scientists have been searching for living specimens for decades. Dead bodies of giant squid have washed ashore many times; but no one had managed to observe a living one in its natural environment -- until now.

A team of Japanese scientists has finally videotaped a giant squid in nature:

Kubodera's team captured photos of the 26-foot-long beast attacking its bait, then struggling for more than four hours to get free. The squid pulled so hard on the line baited with shrimp that it severed one of its own tentacles

"It was quite an experience to feel the still-functioning tentacle on my hand," Kubodera, a researcher with Japan's National Science Museum, told The Associated Press. "But the photos were even better."

Not that I am biased or anything. But I am glad the Japanese team beat the French.

They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven? Is he in -- er, you know --
That damned, elusive Pimpernel!

Hatched by Sachi on this day, September 30, 2005, at the time of 12:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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